A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Andrew Paulmeno, Stanford Business School, CPO at Project Maven, Combat Engineer Officer at theMarine Corps.
What is your background?
Born and raised in New York to a first-generation American family, I remember living through the September 11th attacks. Years later, I felt the call to serve my nation and joined the military. After attending the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland I was commissioned into the Marine Corps. Trained as a Combat Engineer Officer, the next decade found me working on a number of interesting projects across numerous roles inside and outside of my specialty. Working my way up to leading the Department of Defense’s unspecified minor military construction project portfolio for Latin America and the Caribbean, my career was becoming increasingly focused on civil engineering and infrastructure, until I was selected to join the Pentagon’s Project Maven, where I was exposed to space technology use cases and companies. This experience drove me to pursue my MBA and internships with Voyager Space and Space Capital. The drive to explore the final frontier is amazing. Space technology presents a rapidly growing greenfield environment, creates novel technologies that change the world, and ultimately has a huge ability to impact humanity positively. After graduation, I plan to build or join a space startup focusing on infrastructure or telecommunications. Additionally, I am currently serving in the Marine Corps Reserve as the Space Engagements Manager for the Marine Innovation Unit.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
I joined Project Maven about a year ago and I’m most proud of Project Maven’s ability to quickly scale and respond to major contingency events and operations. As a pathfinder program, Project Maven sought to prove traditional tech companies could build solutions that brought the military into the 21st century. We used AI to analyze satellite imagery in support of military intelligence, demonstrating the synergistic value of companies beyond the defense industry, such as Palantir, Amazon, Maxar, and others. As private earth observation constellations proliferate, new sensory types are created, and overall data increases, automated solutions for analysis and fusion become imperative to handle the increased data volumes. We were developing artificial intelligence programs that paved the way for automation in DOD, demonstrating Silicon Valley’s role in the defense industry, and were able to quickly adapt during extremely challenging times. Traditional schools of thought believed defense primes should be the only players in the space, but through multiple contingencies, Maven demonstrated the inherent adaptability and flexibility of commercialized solutions. I believe our effort helped to substantially move the needle in areas ranging from national policy to the European theater.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
The conscious choice to have strong opinions loosely held but paired with healthy doses of curiosity, humility, and no shame about admitting wrong. These decisions have helped me to adapt to every new role and experience I have had. Historically, I have been constantly surrounded by technical professionals, and the only way to become competent was to ask questions and dive deep into the details. Prior to joining Maven, I had no knowledge of the space industry, earth observation, space systems architecture, or artificial intelligence model development. Surrounded by brilliant people, I had to listen to learn, but also trust my instincts to make decisions and drive development. As I became increasingly informed on the subject matter, I began to feel more strongly about certain positions related to engineering priorities, deployment in support of workflows, and customer relations, until certain presumptions were changed. The ability to admit being wrong about certain assumptions allowed us to right-size our solutions to gain traction with product capabilities and key stakeholders.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
I believe either Systems Engineering or Ethics have had the most impact on my life and career. A systems way of thinking helps me to create mental models quickly, narrowing down problems to first principles, reviewing solutions, and making decisions. Ethics has helped me codify a north-star to follow regardless of the environment I find myself in, or the pressures that may be associated. I found myself leaning on these principles once as a young platoon commander responsible for guarding a camp. Having decided a guard tower was structurally unsound, and unable to convince my superior of it, I refused orders to place my Marines inside the structure. Relieved of command for insubordination, I continued to tell the Marines to avoid the tower. Two days later, it collapsed. Fortunately, the Marines had listened to me rather than my superior, and had narrowly avoided serious injury or death. Experiences like these have reaffirmed the importance to me of thinking in systems and studying ethical philosophy.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
Working with brilliant people has always been the highlight of my career. Whether conducting complex demolitions operations with Marines or developing new ways to leverage artificial intelligence for the processing, exploitation, and dissemination of intelligence, I have found that meaningful and challenging work is my favorite. There is always an element of risk, and its mitigation, coupled with a sense of urgency and imperative that makes working towards these common goals an absolute treat. I’ve been blessed to have exceptional talent on my teams. These teams all shared a few key criteria that I believe attract dreamers and doers - ambitious undertakings that seek to do something new, the no-nonsense pursuit towards accomplishing goals, and providing everyone a sense of ownership in the mission. When people want to be on a team, feel like they are meaningfully contributing, and helping to move the needle forward, I’ve found that those teams can move mountains.
The least enjoyable parts of my career have involved positions with no autonomy or agency. This happens in the military, and life in general. We used to have a saying as a young Marine advising us to “bloom where you’re planted.” Performing well even in these tough times is usually recognized, appreciated, and helps you move ahead in your career in ways you might not expect. I’ve learned some of my most valuable lessons in positions I was least excited about. Although easier said than done, finding a way to enjoy where you are and what you’re doing, even if it isn’t what you signed up for, putting your best foot forward, and helping others in your environment always helps make the time go by more quickly. At the end of the day, do the best you can in whichever environment you find yourself in. Focus on what is within your control and don’t stress about that which isn’t.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
Early stage startups looking to enable the new space economy, particularly in the fields of telecommunications and earth based infrastructure. As technologies advance, space will play a role in connecting humanity more than ever before. Finding innovative ways to cost-effectively develop frontier-moving technologies and infrastructure may not be en vogue, but will be the difference maker in accelerating the growth of the space economy.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
Take risks, be authentic, get things done. Even if you don’t succeed in business, these will help you feel successful in life. There is a lot of pressure today on people to play it safe, and there is definitely some value in that, but I believe that it can be hard to feel authentic at times doing so. Since leaving the military, I have found that a strong sense of self, priorities, and interests, an ability to show up for people, and the ability to get things done have been really valuable. Consistency and output are valuable everywhere in life, from your personal relationships to your professional life, and will always help you stand out from the crowd. I definitely attribute some of this to the expectations the Marine Corps placed on its junior officers and am grateful for everything I learned during my time in uniform.
The emphasis on getting things done under any circumstances and without excuses was something that definitely drew me to the Marines. During my time in service, I learned a lot about teamwork, focus, perseverance, and myself. It helped me with both my formal education and a lifetime’s worth of intangible lessons. Although I wouldn’t recommend it for most people, I think the military can provide a tremendous value to young people looking for challenge, purpose, growth, and ways to experience the world.
Another thing I have found valuable are internships. They provide great opportunities for exposure to industries, problem sets, and ways of thinking about various problems. Through three internships in technology, space hardware, and investing, I have been able to glean important aspects of each industry and use them to develop my own view of the world. Some of my most important takeaways from these experiences have been
Time will tell if these experiences will pay off or if these opinions are valid, but I feel optimistic given the opportunity the space economy is presenting and the experiences I have had.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I love to travel and have been to about 40 countries. Hoping to see many more and always looking for someplace off the beaten path.